A NATO Expansion Architect Makes His Case

Monitor editors interviewed Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott about the planned expansion of NATO. The legislatures of NATO nations are now debating ratification of a plan to invite the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary to join in 1999. These are excerpts of the Oct. 15 discussion.

Q What's the purpose of the enlargement strategy?

A It's a question that we need to do a better job of anticipating when it's asked. If the American people aren't satisfied with our answer on that, two-thirds of the Senate is not going to ratify it.

Now that the cold war is over - no more Soviet Union, no more Warsaw Pact - do you need a military alliance in Europe in the transatlantic community at all? Yes. Even though the clear and present danger that caused 12 countries to found the alliance in 1949 no longer exists, there are other threats.

There are three ways you can deal with them. One way, every state has its own military capabilities and deals with any threat that comes along - kind of making alliances of convenience depending on what the threat is. The second way you could deal with it is not have an alliance now but wait until the threat becomes sufficiently serious and then create an alliance. The third way to deal with it is to keep the alliance but adapt it to post-cold-war realities. Should there be a NATO in that fashion, then the question becomes do you keep NATO in its cold-war membership and configuration or do you bring in these new countries that are asking to come in?

There was no sound argument for excluding these countries, telling them they couldn't belong to the alliance, unless you consider it a sound argument that the Russians wouldn't like it.

These are countries that were aspiring to our values, our institutions. How could we possibly say to Poland or Hungary or the Czech Republic it's ok for Belgium or Holland or Luxembourg to be in the alliance because they had the good fortune to be on the right side of the Iron Curtain at the end of World War II, but you are forever cast into outer darkness because you had the bad luck to be on the wrong side.

Q What do we gain from expansion?

A There are a lot of positive things about bringing these countries in. One is they can enhance the military capacity of the alliance because of where they are, and over time, as they adapt their militaries to our standards, they can contribute in that way too.

But the real argument is political. NATO is not just a military organization. It also has a political function. It induced the reconciliation between France and Germany. It's helped keep peace between Turkey and Greece. We think that with the diminishment of the military threat to the alliance, the political function can loom larger, and the prospect of being a member in NATO can have a stabilizing and encouraging effect on these new and rather fragile democracies in the East.

Finally, it matters to the US whether there's peace in Europe. And how many times do we have to learn that lesson before we get it? There should be a transatlantic military organization with a lot of American leadership and the political functions I've described in order to make sure we don't send troops to fight and die in Europe in the 21st century.

Q The eastward expansion irritates Russian leaders, but how does it sit with the average Russian?

A There are a number of people of considerable stature who oppose enlargement because they fear that it will throw Russia off the rails of reform and play into the hands of the ultranationalists. I think that the risks are real, they're not imaginary. But they're greatly exaggerated and they are eminently manageable.

A kind of core issue is: Does NATO constitute a threat to Russia? No, it does not pose a threat to Russia. NATO has already gone a very long way in redefining itself in ways appropriate to the post-cold-war world.

Second, how does the man, woman in the street feel? I'm not on intimate terms with Ivan Ivanovich and Ana Ivanovna. [Polling] indicates that this is not an issue that generates great passion or concern among the rank and file of the Russian population. The average Russian, when he or she wakes up in the morning does not ask, "Is Poland in NATO today?'

The concerns are much more bread-and-butter, pocketbook issues. This is an issue that has energized the elite, the people who are prominently represented in the parliament, in the government. I think that since Russia is now a democracy, the fact that this issue does not stir up a lot of concern among average Russians is encouraging because, over time, the parliament will increasingly reflect the views of the population. Since there's not a lot of white heat there, this issue will calm down.

This is a drama that is going to continue for a generation or more. Russians who either genuinely see NATO as a threat or who are trying to exploit the perception that it's a threat will diminish, and those who are willing to see NATO for what it is - a new alliance and the core of an inclusive, nonhostile security arrangement in Europe - will prevail.

Q Explain what would be a trigger mechanism to send American troops, into a hypothetical European conflict.

A Very, very simple. An attack on one is an attack on the alliance as a whole. It means that if a member state comes under attack, the alliance comes to the defense of that ally.

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